BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Indigenous Papuans are at risk of further marginalisation and the forests and ecosystems on which they rely face destruction due to an ambitious food security project by the Indonesian government, activists say.
Under MIFEE (Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate) plans, 1.63 million hectares of forest which forms the basis of life for some 200,000 indigenous people in the Merauke area would be used to grow rice, palm oil, soya bean and corn among other crops.
Indonesia is seen as a key player in the fight against climate change and is under intense international pressure to curb its rapid deforestation rate and destruction of carbon-rich peatlands.
Activists accuse the authorities of not sufficiently consulting the Malind Anim people about the project, which they say pose a double threat to local Papuans. Not only would they lose their customary lands, but they would also face an influx of migrants from the rest of Indonesia -- further marginalising communities that feel disenfranchised by what they say is the government's exploitation of natural resources at their expense.
"If this project goes ahead, it means we will lose everything - we will lose our land, our culture, our livelihood, our food," Rosa Moiwend, a Papuan activist whose family still lives in Merauke, told AlertNet.
The transition from forest to farm and plantation land would have a "tremendous" impact on natural ecosystems, Carlo Nainggolan from Indonesian rights group Sawit Watch, said.
"Indigenous people who have made use of natural forests to meet necessities of life will experience a dramatically decreased quality of life and well-being," he said.
Department of Agriculture officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Papua, two provinces on the west half of New Guinea island, has long suffered strained ties with Indonesia which took over the area from Dutch colonial rule in 1963. And this week, thousands of indigenous Papuans them marched on the parliament in the capital of Papua, demanding a referendum on independence from the archipelago.
Despite being home to a mine with the world's largest gold and recoverable copper reserves, Papua is one of the least developed regions in Indonesia. According to the United Nations, 40 percent of Papuans live below the poverty line of $1.25 a day, compared to the national average of 18 percent.
Both the central and regional governments have hailed MIFEE as the answer not only to Indonesia's growing concerns about food shortages but as a source of exports.
The project is expected to produce close to 2 million tonnes of rice, almost 1 million tonnes of corn, 2.5 million tonnes of sugar and close to 1 million tonnes of crude palm oil, according to local media reports.
However, activists point out that the staple food for Papuans is sago, a starch derived from sago palm, not rice. And they say there has been discontent in some areas where compensation from companies clearing and managing the land was deemed insufficient.
Despite a recent government pledge to resolve land tenure conflicts and protect the rights of people in forest-based communities, activists say most locals remain in the dark about the project.
"People from the village, when asked about MIFEE project replied, 'MIFEE is a car that frequently crosses the road that reads MIFEE (on the body of the car)'," Sawit Watch’s Nainggolan said.
LOSING A WAY OF LIVING
The massive scale of the project and nature of the indigenous people's skills – many make a living hunting and gathering rather than farming – means a huge workforce is likely to be imported from outside Papua, activists say.
Sawit Watch estimate that some 5 million workers were needed to work the land, or four labourers per hectare. Yet, based on the 2009 census, the number of people native to Merauke was 195,577, Nainggolan said.
The low levels of education, knowledge and Indonesian language skills also mean indigenous Papuans are likely to be only involved in MIFEE as low-skilled labourers despite the loss of their land and livelihoods, he said.
Moiwend summed up the anger felt by activists.
"If the Indonesian government says that we are a part of them, that we are their brothers and sisters like they say, why do they do this project?," she said. "They don't want us to live in our own land. They want to kill us with this project."